Blues Legend Buddy Guy: ‘I Went From Picking Cotton to Picking a Guitar in the White House’
The eight-time Grammy winner was recently in Mumbai to perform at the 10th annual Mahindra Blues Festival
“I saved you,” American blues icon Buddy Guy tells me midway through my 10-minute interview with him. Indeed, he did. While we were seated in a hotel balcony for an interview, strong winds blew down an advertising hoarding that was heading straight for my skull. “I saw it coming. I thought it was paper but it was a little heavier than paper. They need to take those down,” says Guy. He adds, “I saved you with my guitar hand.”
That guitar hand is responsible for popularizing blues standards such as “Mustang Sally,” “Feels Like Rain,” “Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues,” “Baby Please Don’t Leave Me” and more. Indian blues fans were lucky enough to witness the 83-year-old vocalist-guitarist take the stage and perform some of those hits for the fifth time at the 10th edition of the Mahindra Blues Festival at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studio this past weekend.
Guy – an eight-time Grammy Award winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and a Kennedy Center Honorary – spoke to Rolling Stone India about why he keeps coming back to India, former U.S. President Barack Obama, how the price of a guitar went up in 1952 because of the late B.B. King and more. Excerpts:
This is your fifth time back at the Mahindra Blues Festival. What is it about this festival that makes you keep coming back?
The invitation. Anytime you get invited to come to different countries that means somebody must have liked what you did when you come here. [They] must have liked what you did before you came here and before you come here, you have to worry if you’re going to be good enough for them to invite you back. If you get invited back then you must have did something to make somebody smile.
I first came across your music when I heard your version of “Mustang Sally” and that influenced me to get into the blues. You have been an inspiration to not only listeners but also musicians to pick up an instrument and play the blues. How does that make you feel?
Well, that’s what happened to me; I didn’t just pick up a guitar and say this is something new. I was listening to [American musician] Lightnin’ Hopkins and I can make you laugh about this.
I was on a farm and my parents were very poor people and they couldn’t afford to buy me a guitar. So I would pick up a catalog and see a guitar in it and say maybe one day I could make enough pennies to order me a guitar. An acoustic guitar back then was less than three dollars. And all of a sudden this guy named B.B. King came out with a record called “3 O’Clock” and the price of the guitar went from three dollars to 30 dollars. I got a chance to tell him that before he died. I said, ‘If it don’t be for you, I could have got a cheaper guitar.’ [laughs] And I finally got one and my first real guitar was given to me by a friend. He just walked by and saw me sitting with a… I think it had three strings on it and he said ‘Son if you had a guitar I bet you’d learn how to play.’ And I was like ‘Yeah.’ Next thing he did was he took me downtown and bought me a guitar.
You mention about playing on three strings. In the Sonic Highways documentary, you talked about making your own guitar from wires and nails and pieces of wood from a screen porch door. How did you put that guitar together?
It was a little box, a chemical thing that you fight the mosquitoes with. So I put a hole in it, took a piece of wood, nailed it and tried to make it sound like a guitar.
In 2012 you managed to get former U.S. President Barack Obama to sing a verse of “Sweet Home Chicago” in the White House. Tell me how that came about.
One of the staff members told me he’s from Chicago and I knew that and he said, ‘You know if you sang ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ you could get him to come sing a verse.’ I didn’t think nothing of it until he came up to make a speech and I said, ‘Hold on Mr. President you can sing ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and B.B. King started laughing and said, ‘You got him to sing.’ I said, ‘Well at least I got him to do something.’ He’s a great guy. I went there twice with him [Obama] at the White House. I was there at the Kennedy awards and then I went back and played for him again.
What was it like being inducted at the Kennedy Center Honors? You were looking back on your career there and listening to all the artists performing songs you’ve made famous.
Well as always in life, if you get something done and some of the biggest surprises you can get in life is if you get into the White House. I made a comment once, from picking cotton to picking a guitar in the White House which is a little different but both of them was picking. ‘Cause you don’t dream of a farm boy, [who] don’t have an education but gets invited to pick the guitar and play in the White House. Everywhere I’ve been, sometimes I sit back and think ‘Man you the luckiest man in the world to be invited into some of these places you’ve been.’ I have friends ask me, ‘What do I need to do to get where you are at?’ I don’t know, I just kept playing.
Recently we had Mud Morganfield, the son of Muddy Waters, perform here in Mumbai. He told me that you can’t just play the blues; you have to experience it first. He even brought up the fact that his father and you came from the suffering of the south and slavery. Tell me about those early years coming from those times and the things you experienced to get your blues.
We all went through that. They went through it a little more than I did because when I came to Chicago, they were already there. They had left the south before I did. I don’t think neither one of them left saying I’m going to be a musician and be worldwide known. They just was playing music for the love of music and the love of making somebody happy by playing music. ‘Cause there wasn’t no such thing as getting paid well. They never did get paid well. His [Morganfield’s] dad, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy – those great blues players – they never saw a decent living playing music. But they enjoyed it so well that was their past time of happiness, just playing music, and having somebody smiling and having fun because none of them had nothing. If they played well enough they would pick up 10 dollars a night and if they picked up the 10 dollars, actually it wasn’t 10, it was two or three dollars, everyone went and bought a drink and they drank it up.
Last year you released your 18th album The Blues Is Alive And Well – it features Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck – how did these collaborations come about?
I was friends with them before they got famous and they never forgot that. Matter of fact, I was in Chess Studio [in Chicago] doing a record called “My Time”  and Muddy Waters had the Rolling Stones come up to do an audition and they brought them in my session and I wanted to curse them out because I didn’t want nobody in there. Come to find out years later they were so famous, I said, ‘I’m glad you did come in.’
What do you make of the current blues scene around the world and who are some of the young artists you’ve got your eyes and ears on?
Well, you got one here — [American musician] Kenny Wayne (who also performed at the Mahindra Blues Festival this past weekend). He’s much younger. I just recorded another little black guy from Mississippi called Kingfish [Christone Ingram] and he got a record coming up. Hopefully we can inspire a few more. But it’s not easy now because the music is not exposed where they can look at it and say ‘Oh my god’ like I did.
It was there when I was coming up but they don’t play it much no more. You don’t see it on T.V.. My children didn’t know who I was until they got 21 and come into a blues club because you got to be 21 to come into a blues club. Now in Illinois, they’ve changed it. If you can play, you can come in there. But they can make a man or woman out of you and send you to combat in the army at 17 and 18 and spend two years, kill or be killed. But they can’t come into my club, drink a beer and listen to some blues, jazz or whatever kind of music. You ain’t old enough to drink a beer but your old enough to kill or be killed. I don’t think that’s fair.
What is the blues to you?
We sing about everyday life. You sing about something that happened, you didn’t see it coming [the advertising board incident] but I did. You can say ‘My god I saw these two people fighting but I saw two more people loving one another’ [and] you can write about that because you’ve seen it. But it didn’t happen to you. Every time I sang the late great Eddie Boyd’s record “Five Long Years at a Steel Mill,” someone looked at me and said ‘How long you worked at a steel mill?,’ I said, ‘I never worked at a steel mill [laughs].’